Let's Chat About Scallops

Anne here, class of 2017, reporting for duty.  I'm from Southborough, MA, and I love circus arts, books, spontaneous adventuring, and Olin College.

You probably have some idea how awesome, fantastic, and wonderful life at Olin is.  The other first-year bloggers have covered the incredible greatness that is our culture:  The 2am IHOP runs, learning how to spin fire, midnight unicycling, spontaneous movie nights and Avatar: The Last Airbender marathons.  But, oddly enough, there's actually schoolwork happening at Olin (cue shocked gasps from the audience).  I know, right?  We actually do some engineering here, too.

We first-years are just finishing up our first project for ModSim (Modeling and Simulation of the Physical World).  Everyone is individually modeling the same physical system: the populations of sharks, rays, and scallops and their interactions.  The idea is that sharks eat rays, and rays eat scallops.  However, increased shark fishing means that the rays are increasing rapidly, eating more and more scallops, and the scallop fishing industry is suffering.  We need to model the process and maybe even propose some solutions.

The project has been a whirlwind of marine biology research (including unhelpful headlines like "Fishing leads to significant shark population declines, researchers say" - very insightful there), drawing up some equations to model predation and starvation, and learning MATLAB so we can implement our models and graph the populations over time.

Surprisingly enough, it's not as easy as it sounds.  For my very first iteration, I put my equations into MATLAB, and set the initial values of each population to 1000.  According to the graph, sharks were a constant line of zero population across all 100 years.  The rays simply did not exist.  Scallops briefly appeared in year 33 with a population of 10296, and then disappeared in the next year.  For reference, there are an estimated 1082 atoms in the observable universe.  As you might guess, my model needed some work.

I wasn't alone in this.  Turns out, pretty much everyone had some funny issues with their first attempts.  My friend Michael had scallops spontaneously generating themselves into existence.  Ian had all three populations dying immediately in the first year.  Many people experienced having negative sharks that later came back from the dead.  Breaking news, Oliners: campus is being evacuated due to zombie shark attacks in first year dorms.  Do not panic.

As you might imagine, frustration levels were running high in the freshman class.  Midnight pancake parties only somewhat alleviated the stress.  Even the typical fallbacks of games of Catan and Bananagrams could hardly restore our confidence in our models.  Looking up videos of how ridiculously absurd scallops look when swimming barely cheered us up.

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Before any prospies get terrified out of their wits, I'll have you know that I still love my ModSim class.  Getting illogical non-physical graphs that fail marvelously at modeling the system are a big part of the learning process.  Debugging code, improving equations, understanding and connecting with your model on an emotional level: all will guide you through the project.  Look at my new, improved, zoologically probable graphs!  Note: rays also look ridiculous when swimming, and express my happiness at having a working model.

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Also, shared frustration is a great first-year bonding experience. And remember: consult a NINJA* for help before throwing your laptop from your third-floor window.  True, there's a 4-year warranty, but falling laptops are a health hazard discouraged by the administration.

*stands for "Need Information Now? Just Ask." They're upperclassmen who designated as course assistants who will help you through all your troubles.

And, miraculously, as you learn your way through MATLAB and modeling, your whole perspective becomes:

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- Anne c/o 2017

Posted in: Anne '17